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Thursday, 24 December 2020

Two Poems. Christmas 2020

YB Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)
 
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
 
Yeats wrote this poem in 1919 as the world lay waste in the wake of the Great War, and as Ireland held its breath to see how the British would respond to its independence movement, and as his wife lay sick in bed, apparently dying in childbirth, having contracted the Spanish flu. The poet expresses his real anxieties about both the future of the world, and about his personal and domestic peace.  What is to become of us, he muses, if the centre cannot hold, if the falcon can no longer hear the falconer’s voice, if every sense of order and meaning that one might have once counted on is no longer there? What if anarchy takes over and the notion of a common good is replaced by the rule of the angry mob or, worse still, the rule of  some kind of monstrous sphinx-like dictator who cares nothing for life or for common decency? Is the monster a man, or is it a virus, some kind of cosmic force? The poet doesn’t know. But he has a deep sense of foreboding and wonders whether an anti-Christ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born in a grotesque mockery of the birth of Christ. 

Greg Weatherby 'Birth of Jesus'

There are equally anxious voices out there in the ether right now, on this very night.  For it has indeed been the worst year many of us are able to remember. The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 9 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. In some places, the fires burned so hot that stone structures melted and even the biomatter below the surface of the ground was utterly obliterated. Ecologists are now saying that in such places, nothing will ever be able to grow again. Even where this is not the case, in parts of the forest where regeneration is possible, whole ecosystems – millennia in the making - have been utterly laid waste. It is also estimated that over 1 billion native animals perished in the fires, many of them belonging to species already close to extinction such as koalas and mountain pygmy possums. A large portion of those animals apparently died either because the fires were travelling too fast or because they could not make their way through fences erected by property owners.  The response of government is to continue to bury its head in the sand and go ‘la la la la’ with regard to the now decades of warnings about climate change that have been coming in, across the airwaves, from scientists and Indigenous peoples alike.  2020 has been the warmest on record, and next year will be warmer, so get used to the Australia you know going up in flames or being washed away by floods and gale-force winds.

And then there’s the pandemic. Not the Spanish flu this time, but Covid-19. To date Covid-19 has killed 1.8 million people and sent the global economy into its worst recession since the early 1930s. The disease has been cruel in the choices it forces upon both governments and individuals. Some have continued to work, to keep their businesses open, to meet with friends and family in the same way as we’ve always done.  The cost of this choice is very often contracting the disease and passing it on; many who chose this path have died.  The other choice is not so good either, really. To stay at home, to cease working in the social way we have been used to, to stop meeting up with friends and family in order to slow the progress of the disease through the community. But, for many, embracing this second set of options – often in the name of caring for others – has unleashed unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation and, for some, a life and death struggle with that equally merciless killer, depression.  To avoid one kind of pandemic, it seems, many of us have had to throw ourselves into the path of another.

Climate change. Pandemics of body and mind. We could go on to consider the impact of these things on the refugee crisis, the plight of Indigenous peoples, international students, casual workers and so on. We could talk about Trump and Sco-Mo and Boris, we could talk about populism as a symptom of anxiety. But I will refrain.  You get the point. There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and the anxiety is not a response to things that aren’t actually there. There are very good reasons to feel anxious.  There are good reasons to believe that the centre can no longer hold, that the order of things we have come to take for granted is about to go belly-up.  Very good reasons.

I want to point out, however, that when Yeats wrote his poem in 1919 he conveniently forgot a few things. He forgot that the British has been brutalising and starving the Irish for several centuries already, and that the prospect of a new crackdown on the independence movement was therefore hardly unexpected.  He also forgot that the Great War was not the first conflict to have devasted Europe. It was simply the latest in a continuous series of conflicts that had already killed or maimed millions and destroyed economies utterly. Hardly new. He also conveniently forgot that the Spanish flu was not Europe’s first pandemic. There had been plagues and black deaths for centuries.  Again, hardly unprecedented.  All of which is to say that whilst Yeats brilliantly captures the anxiety he felt in 1919, his poem can hardly be taken as a witness to something entirely new or unforeseen in the story of humanity. Quite simply, there has never been a ‘centre’, some kind of cosmic or moral order, that is suddenly falling into rack and ruin. Rack and ruin has been the name of the game from the beginning. There has always been war, there have always been bully-boy politicians, there has always been poverty. There has always been illness and death. At the time when Jesus was born, for example, the Jews had been ruled by foreign powers for three centuries already.  They knew well that everything had gone to pot. The life-expectancy of your average landless male peasant was around 30 years, and just 40 years if you happened to have a trade, such as carpentry. Most of the Jewish population now expected that life would be short, and it would be brutal. You were born, you worked yourself to the bone to keep your family from starving, and then you died very young, and usually left a widow but hopefully some sons and daughters who could take over the family business and do it all again.  To a family like that, just like that, Jesus was born.

It’s easy to give into despair. Very easy. Most days, especially in the lead-up to Christmas, I am sorely tempted to go there. Afterall, my own people were colonised by the British and felt the savagery of the moral 'order’, the ‘centre’ they wished to impose. I still carry the trauma of that in my mind and my body. So does this ‘country’: our lands, seas and waterways. There are deep wounds in our dreaming-places wherever you turn. But I don’t go there: to despair, I mean. And the reason I don’t is actually very simple.  I believe that in spite of all that is wrong, there is a power in the world for right. That is spite of all that is brutal and cruel, there is a power in the world that is caring, and knows how to offer love and succour to all who are hurting. I believe that in spite of the darkness and ignorance that floods our country and our lives, that there is a power in the world for light and life, and for living with country as kin, as family. That this power is here with us - that it is all around us, that it waits patiently to seep into our minds and hearts at the first indication that we are willing and in need - I can never prove to anyone. Not in the unassailable manner that many expect, anyway. But I can testify to its reality, to its power, and to its essential character: love, kindness, welcome, shelter, hospitality.  I see and feel and know these things every single day.

Rather than rabbit on and on and on about love, and about Jesus as the way in which love shows itself to the world, I want to read another poem: a poem, this time, from a humble parish priest from the Welsh countryside. 

RS Thomas - The Coming
 
And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

The Son did come here, to live amongst us, to teach us his way of love, and to save us from the worst excesses of our inhumanity and hatred of country. It is that coming, the coming of light and love and kindness and compassion, that we celebrate tonight, and to which we commit ourselves anew for a more hopeful future.

I wish you all a holy and most joyful Christmas.

Garry Deverell
Christmas Eve 2020




Saturday, 12 December 2020

Not the Messiah, People!

 Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

Well, greetings everyone. Thanks for having me back. It’s an unusual thing, people having me back to preach more than once. It’s possible, of course, that you may have forgotten just how excruciating my preaching can be.  If that’s the case, don’t worry. I’m here to remind you!

You laugh, but I’m only partly joking. My homily will, I promise, be an immense non-event for many of you. For what do folks reasonably expect from a preacher when they get along to church?  Words of wisdom for a topsy-turvy age? Sorry, if I ever knew how to dance wisdom’s tune, I’ve now forgotten the steps. Words of comfort for a hurting world? Nope, fresh out of those too. I have no idea what to do with my own hurt, let alone anyone else’s. Practical solutions for practical problems? Nuh, I’m famous for my lack of practical know-how.  One reviewer of my most recent book said: ‘Dr Deverell is very good at lamenting the problem, but offers very little by way of practical solutions.’ So, here we are. Two paragraphs in and things are looking pretty grim already.

Still, I have one competent-preacher trick to keep your attention. Name-dropping. When Nathan and I were discussing my visit during the week . . .   Sorry, just messing with you. I really meant to drop the name of that other famous Baptist. John. John the Baptist.  I have great affection for John, even though I’m an Anglican. Why? Because he, too, was a lamentable preacher.

According to the account we have from the other John, John the Evangelist, when some faculty members were sent from the Jerusalem theological college to ask who John was, he replied ‘I’m not the messiah’.  I’m Not The Messiah. Which is another way of saying, ‘Nuh, not wise. Struggling to see a big picture in all of this. Nuh, not a healer of hurts.  Not a doctor or psychologist, people. Nuh, no practical solutions to our social and political problems. Not a canny politician.’ Nope. Not the Messiah. Not the bloke with the answers. No-one’s saviour. Not me. Nuh.

Now, it is extraordinary to me that the Jerusalem theologians didn’t leave it at that and walk away. I mean, John had told them clearly that he was nobody special and that there was nothing to see here. But hey! They’re theologians! Not particularly bright! So they asked him two more questions about his identity: ‘Are you Elijah?’, ‘Are you the prophet?’ Remember, people, that these were crazy times. The Romans had occupied the countryside and folk were desperate for a saviour.  So people speculated about the coming of a messiah, a saviour anointed by God, who would rescue God’s people from their oppressors. There were rumours that a prophet, a great preacher, would arise to announce the messiah’s imminent arrival, and it was possible that this preacher would be Elijah, one of the greatest, returned from the dead. Perhaps John was that prophet? Perhaps John was Elijah? 

Well, ‘No. I am not.’ That was John’s categorical reply. And I don’t think he was lying. Because liars, in my experience, tend to present themselves as saviours. Like Trump telling his supporters, in 2016, that he would ‘drain’ the Washington ‘swamp’ of its political corruption when his real plan was to corrupt it even more. Or Peter Dutton promising, this week, to save us from terrorists by granting himself the power to detain people without judicial review, when his actual plan is to discourage dissent by creating a legal apparatus to gag journalists and whistle-blowers. John the Baptist wasn’t like the Donald. Neither was he like Dutton. He didn’t lie by presenting himself as a saviour.  Instead, he was up-front and disarmingly truthful: ‘I am not Elijah, I am not the prophet, I am not the messiah.’ (Sings ‘It ain’t me babe, no no no, it ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for babe’). Sorry, I digress.

Apparently John’s going all Bob Dylan just made the theologians even more curious. ‘Ok then,' they said. 'If you’re not Elijah, not the prophet, not the messiah, who are you? Give us an answer for those who sent us. For you wash people's sins away in the river, which looks like the kind of thing the prophet who announces the messiah would do.’ To which John memorably replied, and I quote:

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said . . . I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

Ooh. Now this is getting interesting. ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness’.  What does that mean? Can’t claim to know precisely, but that ‘voice’ reminds me of a couple of phrases in the 2017s ‘Statement from the Heart’, promulgated by a broad coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. Amongst other things, the Statement calls for the ‘establishment of a First Nations Voice’ to be ‘enshrined in the Constitution.’ This ‘Voice’, the statement goes on to say, would be there to ensure that in our relationships with settler communities are built upon truth rather than lies. Truth. Truth about what has happened in this land. The invasions, the stealing of lands, the massacres, the removal of children from their parents, the exiling of elders, the slavery, the stolen wages, the destruction of language and culture. The truth. A voice to ensure that the truth is told. A voice crying in the wilderness. The wilderness of lies and denial. The wilderness of Australia today.

Perhaps the voice of John the Baptist is like the voice proposed by the Statement from the Heart, which makes no promises about a saviour but, more modestly, expresses a hope that the truth will be told; that someone, anyone, will become a voice of truth. For whilst lies and denials cover everything in darkness, truth uncovers things, reveals things, bathes them in light. Remember what the evangelist says of John at the beginning of his gospel?

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

John’s baptism was meant to be a testimony to the light, to the truth. It had to do with repentance, a washing away of all the shitty lies we tell ourselves. Especially the lie that we ourselves are the light, the source of our own salvation, or that a charismatic man of passion like John is the light, or that your favourite church or preacher is the light.  Newsflash people. John was no saviour! He bore witness to the saviour. He pointed away from himself toward the saviour. For the light was the messiah who was yet to come. It was Jesus, who came and lived amongst us, who taught us his ways, who was murdered by the state and exulted to the right hand of God. Who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and whose reign of justice and peace will have no end. It is he who is the true speaker of the words Isaiah records: 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

One of the church’s most terrible mistakes was to take this passage to itself, as though it were we, the church, who take on the mantle of the messiah. We do not, not even as the ‘body’ or ‘temple’ of Christ in whom Jesus’ Spirit has come to dwell.  For the best way to ‘be’ the body of Christ is, somewhat paradoxically, to point away from ourselves to the Jesus who is not yet here, to the mystical, cosmic, body that has not yet entirely arrived. To be like John the Baptist. To tell the truth that we are nothing special, that our answers to the great questions are at best educated guesses, and that our ‘good deeds’ are worth little more than the thong of Jesus' sandal, so regularly do they fall short of the mark. But then we are called to look toward the horizon, toward the light that is coming into the world entirely of its own accord. And to encourage others to do the same, to follow our gaze, and to wait with eager expectation for the one who, alone, has the power to do some decent saving.

All of which is to say: If you’re looking for wisdom, look for it in Jesus. If you are hurting and in need of healing, look for the salve that is Jesus. If you need practical solutions to difficult problems, look for them in Jesus. Because your preachers and the churches that ordain them, we aren't really up to it. We can't be relied upon to know what we are doing. The most honest of us know that it is so, and cast ourselves upon the grace of God as our only chance for redemption. But some of us are also canny enough to point to Jesus, the first and only source of all such grace. Like a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread when you have none of our own. As every Baptist worthy of that name should.

Garry Deverell

This homily was preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church on the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2020.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

A voice cries out

Texts: Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85. 1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

Let me begin with a story, a might of been, with regard to that voice crying out in the Judean desert. Down amongst the ruins that used to be Jerusalem, a voice cried out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . .
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

 The voice drifted on the morning breeze to where Joseph and Baruch were cooking their breakfast on a nearby hill.  ‘What highway’s he on about?’ said Joseph to Baruch.  ‘The highway of the Lord’, said the other.  ‘Apparently God is going to restore our fortunes.  He’s going to come roaring down this new highway they’re making, rebuild the city, and set up court in the temple as if he were Moses himself!’   ‘Somehow I doubt it!’, said Joseph, and their laughter pealed across the valley. 

But after the silence had taken hold once more, Baruch said:  ‘Still, that’d be nice, wouldn’t it.  A king in Zion who’d give blokes like you and me a go.  I’m blowed if I’m going to slave my guts out to keep these new bloody nobles in their palaces!’ 

Joseph chewed his tripe thoughtfully.  ‘Time for a year of . . .  ah, what did they call it?  . . .  Jubilee, that’s it.  Time for Jubilee, when all that’s been lost or screwed up get put back to rights.  You know, it was the grandsires of these new bloody nobles that confiscated our clan-land back in the time of Uzziah’.  And then his eyes filled with tears.  ‘I’d swear my troth to a Jubilee King.  Bloody oath I would.  Bloody oath’.  The cry of an eagle lifted their eyes to the sun, while, in the valley below, a shepherd led his sheep through the ruins.

________________________________

 

‘So who is this Baptist fellow, anyway?’ asked Simon.  ‘A hermit’, said Uriah.  ‘He comes from a good family, by all accounts.  His father was a temple bureaucrat and he was being groomed for the priesthood.  But right in the middle of his training he had a bit of a turn and bolted for the desert!  Apparently he spent some time with that monkish crowd out near the dead sea.  What are they called?’   ‘The Essenes’, answered Simon.  ‘Yeah.  They’re pretty strange, by all accounts, waiting for their beloved Messiah to come!  My uncle Max (you know, the psychiatrist who trained in Rome) reckons that these separatist groups don’t have the ego-strength to mix it in the real world.  So they run away to the desert, where they can set up their own little fantasy.  Makes life simpler, I’m sure.  But it’s such a cop-out.  They could never cope with the real world that you and I know about, that’s pretty clear!’.

 Uriah took a drag on his cigar and ordered another caráf of red.  ‘I went out for a look the other day’, he said, casually.  Simon nearly choked on his café-latté.  ‘You went out for a look?  My God, man, what possessed you to do something like that?  Surely you’re not having a mid-life crisis!  Not at the tender age of 35!’.  His laughter filled the restaurant, but Uriah didn’t join in.  Flushing, he stared into his drink.  Simon stopped laughing.  ‘I’m not sure why I went, exactly’, said Uriah, looking up and out, as if towards an empty sky.  Then he turned to look his companion in the eye.  ‘Listen, Simon.  This is going to sound weird, but . . .  I’m feeling a little jaded right now.  This ‘real world’ we live in, you and I, isn’t feeling like much fun at the moment.  What’s real about being part of the Jerusalem middle-class?  Most Jews live in landless poverty!  What’s real about doing legal work for the Romans? They’re the occupying power, for Moses’ sake!  I feel like I’m betraying my own people, stomping on their heads just to get a leg up!  Add to that the fact of my disaster of a marriage!  I work so hard that I hardly ever see my kids, and I really don’t know who Priscilla is these days, or what she gets up to  . . .’

 Simon’s face has turned pale.  ‘Mate’ he said. ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  Listen, life might not be all it’s cracked up to be at times.  But this is how it is!  This is reality!  This is reál-politics!  God Almighty!  What did that preacher say out there anyway?’   

 ‘”Prepare the way of the Lord”,’ said Uriah. ‘”Prepare the way of the Lord” . . .  that’s what he said.  He was baptising people in the river to wash their crappy lives away.  And he spoke of a Great One to come who would baptise not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.’  

 Suddenly the space around the two men was different.  Something shifted, the world changed.  Even the sunset and the evening breeze seemed to speak in a different voice.  For a moment, Simon was caught there.  From a place deep in his people’s history he heard the mad voices of nomads, prophets and saints, crying out with anguish and longing for a world made new.  And for a moment, just a moment, he joined them in their longing.  But he shook himself free from the reverie, and rose from the table.  ‘Uriah’, he said, ‘you’re losing it mate’.  And away he walked.  Back to the real world.  The world of cafés and credit and weekends at the beach-house.

_____________________________________

 When you come to worship, why do you come?  Is it to escape from the real world, to run away from the awfulness of life?  Or is it the opposite.  Did you come, perchance, to enter, albeit for a moment, a world which is somehow more real, a world that takes your reality seriously, and addresses you where you are afraid, and hurting, and in need of healing?

 If this Advent season is about anything it’s about taking the voices that cry in the wilderness seriously, the mad voices of nomads, Indigenes and saints, the voices that tell the truth.  And what is the truth?  Simply this: that the “real” world is a fake; that capitalism and the mad rush to accumulate and consume is killing us all, body, mind, and spirit; that entertainment and celebrity are stealing away our capacity to lives our own lives.  Ha!   I remember a schizophrenic friend being afraid to turn on the television.  “When I do,” he said, “the demons suck my spirit away.”  I thought he was dangerously unstable at the time.  But now I’m not so sure.  Now I reckon he was on to something.

 The voice that cries in the wilderness tells another truth too.  “Things can be different,” it says, “Thing can be different than they are today.  Why?  Because the glory of God is coming!  It is on its way, and it is nearly here.”  You see, what John the Baptist promised people out there in the desert was not just change, but metamorphosis.  What’s the difference, I hear you ask?  Well, let me put it like this.  Change is when you swap from Pears shampoo to Decoré.  Change is when you sell up in Balwyn and move to Springvale.  Change is watching “Sixty Minutes” instead of “Today Tonight”.  But metamorphosis?  Metamorphosis is when a Tootsie family in Rwanda is able to invite their son’s Hutu killers to dinner.  Metamorphosis is when Senator Macarius of Rome becomes a hermit monk, and plaits ropes for a living in the Egyptian desert.  Metamorphosis was when my Dad stopped beating people up because he found somebody who could truly love him.  My mum. 

 To be metamorphosed.  In the Greek of the gospel the word is metanoia, and it is expressed and performed in the practise of baptism.  In the early days of the faith, when the church was possibly more Christian than it is today, baptism was taken very, very seriously indeed.  For baptism was not just a ceremony of change designed to welcome people into a church they can neither comprehend nor belong to.  Rather, it was a powerful sacrament of metamorphosis, a piece of method theatre in which the candidate bound themselves so intimately to Christ that everything they had been before they heard his call was literally cast aside in order to make room for the new life which Christ had promised them by his love and his grace.  In approaching the waters, the candidate would remove their clothes.  Then they would descend, naked, into the waters, where the priest would pronounce the sacred words.  Then, when they emerged, the choirs would sing and they would put on the new garb of white, which symbolised the glory of Christ.  No longer would they live from their own powers.  From now on, they were dead, marked with the scars of the crucified Christ.  The life they now lived in the body would be that of the Son of God, who loved them, and gave his life for them.  Here there was no gap between ceremony and life.  Life became baptism, and baptism became the life in Christ.

 In baptism we pledge ourselves to Christ, to become his slaves, to give ourselves into his hands completely.  But in doing so we in respond to a love and promise that always already precedes our decisions:   Christ’s promise to always be there, on the other side of the waters, there to raise us from the depths, and array us in the splendour of the redeemed.  The promise assures us that our time of penance is ended, that it is God, himself, to now comes to work the forgiveness, freedom and deliverance we so long for.   Without this promise, all of our being sorry and all of our determination to change makes for nothing.

 In this we find out what Advent really means, as the season of promise par excellence:  that within and beyond the appalling squalor of our greedy, consumption-driven lives; within and beyond our self-hatred and despair; within and beyond the awful inhumanity of our politics; within and beyond all this, Christ arrives.  Christ arrives with love enough, with peace enough, with hope enough to make things very, very, very different.

Glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now and for ever, world without end.  Amen.

Garry Deverell